Although the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many events across the country, it failed to stop Eckerd’s senior thesis presentations this spring. Senior researchers presented their research virtually, which included a thesis defense with their thesis committee.
Recent alumna Kyla Foley is among those students who presented their thesis virtually, presenting her research on finding relations between dolphin sounds and ambient noise levels in the open ocean. She was unable to play the audio recordings that were crucial to her data over the Zoom call, though she was still able to visually show the dolphin and boat sound spectrograms.
On another hand, this new way of presenting gave the opportunity for friends and family to join the Zoom call and share this experience.
“I think that was something unique to this year that has been lost in past years, and I hope in some ways can be preserved in the future,” Foley said.
Every year, a number of Eckerd seniors present their thesis research to the Eckerd community and, more specifically, to their thesis committee. Following the presentation, a thesis defense takes place in which the student researcher will answer questions from the thesis committee about their research. The committee provides feedback to the researcher and lets them know if they have passed or not.
With the news that the presentations would be virtual, Foley was disappointed but also a little relieved. Foley said that relief came from knowing she would do her defense at home with her friends and family. She also said that any thesis defense is “both exhilarating and a little frightening, but it is a little less nerve-wracking when you don’t actually have to stand up in front of an audience.”
For her thesis research, Foley chose to look at how sounds and acoustics impacted dolphins, such as their populations and habitats. Her research used seven years’ worth of acoustic data from dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. She used this passive acoustic monitoring to collect recordings of dolphin sounds in the area in order to find relationships in data.
Foley collected data from recreational and commercial boats from Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties as well as arrivals into the Tampa Bay Port. She used a collection of boats in order to see how ambient noise changed depending on the type of vessel.
Foley said that it was anticlimactic to have her work be presented behind a computer screen, however there was some relief for Foley. Presenting virtually was new for everyone involved, and Foley felt they all understood that there would be some disconnect in this format.
“There was definitely a different feel,” Foley said.
As with any research, Foley faced some challenges along the way.
“I think one of the hardest parts for me during my thesis project was knowing that I could ask for help, and that admitting I needed assistance wasn’t a sign that I wasn’t able to handle the project,” Foley said.
Once Foley asked for help, her thesis advisor provided guidance and the project ran smoother. Both Shannon Gowans, professor of marine science and biology, and Peter Simard, visiting professor of environmental studies, helped guide her through this process.
“I am incredibly grateful for their encouragement in this endeavor,” Foley said.
Simard spoke highly of Foley’s performance throughout her thesis project.
“Working with Kyla was more like working with a graduate student, and a very good one at that. I’m looking forward to continuing work with Kyla as we finish up her research and submit it for publication in a journal,” Simard said.
Foley’s thesis process started early in her college career. During her first year at Eckerd, Foley was a first year research associate with the Eckerd College Dolphin Project. After that experience, she became more involved with acoustic research, specifically in her junior year. She worked closely with Simard, which led to the development of her thesis.
Foley encourages students to pursue a thesis, but says that they should recognize that it is a lot of work. She says that students aspiring to do their own thesis research should not be afraid to start early and reach out to professors about their interests.
“A thesis project does not happen overnight,” Foley says. “However, if you take the plunge and put the work in, it is so incredibly rewarding. I think finally seeing my completed thesis PDF really made it click for me that I am a scientist, and I am ready to enter the next stage of my education and my life after Eckerd. I highly recommend it.”